Sunday, November 10, 2013

He Spent Twenty Years Doing What?

I don't say this enough, but I'm a lucky guy.

And while I'm not really sure how the planets aligned this way, I've got two brothers-in-law who have spent so much time in the military, they're qualified to use the term "retired" after their names and ranks.

I'm the squishy meatball center of this brother-in-law hoagie, so it boggles my rapidly wilting grey matter that these two dudes didn't wash out of basic training like I probably would have. They didn't put in a tough couple of years or even a decade dodging things that go boom in the night.

Nope. These guys each served twenty. Are you kidding? Sure, I've selflessly sacrificed twenty years of my life to the fashion industry, but the only RPGs I've survived have been Ridiculously Passé Gauchos.

A while back, I talked about my wife's brother Dean, who'd just retired from the United States Air Force. This time, I'd like to relate the story of another man I've had the honor to know, one who spent his career submerged in a steel tube with so many other men, they needed a government contract with the folks at Astroglide Personal Lubricant just to pass each other in the hallway.

To claim that Andy Leal, who retired from the U.S. Navy as a nuclear submarine engineer with the rank of Lieutenant Commander, is a classic American success story, sounds cliché and dramatic—

—and true.

His parents grew up in Lajes, Terceira, a village in the Azores. Just to give you an idea of where the Azores are, here's a little visual aid.

The Azores are considered part of Portugal, but I think they may actually be closer to Gary freaking Indiana. Holy shit, I'm guessing Domino's out there guarantees thirty days or less.

Only four years of public schooling were offered on Andy's parents' island. If further education was desired, the family had to pay to send their children to one of the two towns on the island. Most families, including the Leals', were far too poor to pay for private schooling, so their children ceased their education after fourth grade, the boys moving to the farms and the girls learning virtually every other skill to make a home self-sufficient.

After his parents grew to adulthood and began dating, an opportunity arose for Andy's father to emigrate to America. I'll let Andy explain the rest. My questions are italicized.

How long did your parents live in the United States before you were born?

My father came over a couple of years before they married. He found a job sweeping floors in a lumber mill in southern Washington. He worked his way into the production lines and earned enough to buy a home, return to the Azores and marry my mother. I was born less than a year after they moved to the U.S.

Did they suggest you join the military or was it something you came up with on your own?

It was something I came up with on my own after hearing about how expensive college was and how the G.I Bill could help. My father had just spent a period of time unemployed after the lumber industry collapsed and his mill closed. I figured that our family could not afford college. Loans scared me, as my father was very passionate when it came to debt. He paid off his mortgage in three years!

Why submarines? I don't think I've ever seen a movie about submarines that ended well.

The recruiter and others convinced me that the submarine force was a smaller and more tight-knit community than the surface force. When I had the option to switch to surface at Officer Candidate School, I stuck with submarines. Looking back, it was definitely a great choice. You really feel part of a team when you are with the crew.

I can imagine that with that many crew members, at least one would snap and need restraining. What happened in these instances?

Yes, this happens. I recall one crew member that had to be sent home after just a few days underway because he could not take it. He tried to cope for a while, but was put over the edge when he heard an exercise torpedo go by under the hull.

In Puerto Rico, we offered civilians a tour of the submarine. As with most tours, some people refuse to go down the ladder into the vessel. One woman started down the ladder and about half way down, she completely locked up and would not let go. It took three of us to pry her hands off and carry her out.

What was the longest amount of time you spent submerged?

I think the longest period without a port call was over sixty days.

That's incredible! Okay, I'm going to ask you the same question I asked Dean. Did you ever experience an "Oh shit, I'm gonna die!" moment, or something where you were unsure how things would turn out?

Unfortunately, the moments are more frequent than most submariners want to admit.

While cruising around at test depth, the announcement of “flooding!” on the emergency communications circuit simply took my breath away. It was a few seconds of complete fear, then a follow-up announcement stated that it was an awareness drill that was designed not to seem like a drill.

Some of those things are simply part of doing business under the ocean.

I'm glad that's how you looked at it. I would've needed a quart of vodka and some big boy Huggies. 

I know you were stationed on active duty in Connecticut on September 11, 2001. What did that imply for the U.S. submarine fleet and what were your orders?

We were underway and transiting to start a war game. We came to periscope depth in the early afternoon. Because we do not regularly have communications when we are deep, we had no idea what had happened. As soon as we raised the communications mast, we received the news. At first, we thought that our exercise DEFCON messages had started early, but then we realized that this was real.

We stayed at periscope depth and stood by for orders. We were close enough to the coast where we could tune into the AM radio stations from New York City. This gave us the info that we could not get from military radio circuits.

Meanwhile, we planned for war. As a submarine, our only real limit is food, so we determined how much food we had on board and how long we could stay out before needing more. Everything else was about making sure we were ready to shoot when needed. 

A significant challenge immediately after the attack was handling the emotions of crew members. Some had family in New York and Washington D.C. and others knew that their families were visiting these places. Obviously, getting word back to us was slow while dealing with the military implications of the attack.

On the lighter side, I know that throughout all those years, you saw some strange things through the periscope. 

Looking out of the periscope can be very boring when you are out in the middle of the ocean. However, there are always interesting things floating out there. 

Like a dead cow. It was bloated and disgusting, while incredibly interesting at the same time. Did it float down a river or was it pushed off a ship? Standing birds are always suspicious. After all, they are standing on something! 

Okay, last question: You received many accolades throughout your career. Did you receive a medal for being married to my sister for two decades?

I should have…

Thanks, Andy. Have a peaceful Veterans Day.

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